Earning the Vietnamese Public’s Trust: A Response to Covid-19

Written under the nom de plume, Hồn Du Mục, and initially published on Medium.com, “Earning the Vietnamese Public’s Trust” provides nuanced insight into the Vietnam’s successful containment of the coronavirus. The piece examines how the Vietnamese public, often skeptical (if not cynical) of the government, bought into state measures that thwarted the virus’s spread. Hồn Du Mục considers how social networks processed information and news of Covid-19’s encroachment, how people interpreted (not merely agree or disagree with) government decrees, and how people talked to each other about their fears and doubts. These textures of social life illuminate different forms of Vietnamese agency: to act and rationalize from a position of doubt, to interpret information, and to shape conversation. The Vietnamese state is authoritarian. But to enact an effective public health program against Covid-19, the government needed to earn the public’s trust with accurate information and communication. The ability to foster trust with the public is one of the primary keys to Vietnam’s effective response to Covid-19. Numerous explanations of Vietnam’s Covid successes have myopically focused either on the government’s authoritarian ways or to its compliant population (so as to clump Vietnam with other Asian countries that have kept the coronavirus at bay). To do so is to dismiss the public’s agency and social life. Hồn Du Mục’s essay provides much needed perspective amidst such flattening explanations of Vietnam during this pandemic.
— Ben Tran, diaCRITICS Contributing Editor.

Photo courtesy of Hồn Du Mục.

For a variety of reasons — some predictable, others absurd — Vietnam’s Covid-19 response has jumped the usual confines of SE Asian new cycles and made its way to a broader audience. Look around long enough and you’ll find it being cited by someone as an example of just about everything good or bad about the world. It is a competent government response; it is a happy accident of authoritarianism. It is the product of science-based policy in action; it is the effect of thousands of years old traditions of social organization. People have come together for a unified purpose in a manner not seen in decades; it has brought out the worst in public shaming.

The Twitter beefs spawned by these differences of interpretation are too tiresome to recount. Find them if you must. I effectively talk myself down from that ledge more often than not, but there is one consistent element to these quite varied depictions that seems worth addressing. The way that it oversimplifies (or outright misrepresents) Vietnamese social life muddies these waters in an avoidable way. I think we can do better.

Whether this country’s pandemic response is being held up as exemplary or critiqued, the descriptions of the efforts tend to highlight the degree to which the government and the people have been on the same page throughout. This is usually characterized as a near universal trust or fear of the national and local governments implementing the Covid-19 measures. Neither is particularly helpful for understanding how things work in Vietnam.

Government statements are to be interpreted, not held in judgement as true or false.

In two decades of off-and-on living in the country, I don’t think I’ve ever met an adult who expressed complete trust or confidence in the Vietnamese government, though the idea is so absurd in its own right that I also can’t imagine when opportunity for such would arise. This includes the actual members of the government and Party I’ve had the chance to get to know. There is a huge spectrum of confidence in the various capacities of the government, and while nobody I know feels the need to even weigh in on whether or not explicit statements by the government should be measured with regards to their truth or falsehood, almost everyone devotes serious energy to deciding whether they can trust their own sense of government motivations and susceptibilities. Government statements are to be interpreted, not held in judgement as true or false.

Similarly, the way that any fear of the government or the Party plays out in the public sphere is nuanced and negotiated. People understand the singular authority held by the Party and its unique ability to be the final word on matters via a monopolized power extending up to and including violence. That isn’t news to anyone. But being the final word is a long way from scripting the conversation. Leaping straight to naked displays of violent enforcement is much less frequent of an operating principle than the many cartoonish depictions of modern Vietnam would suggest. The implementation of pandemic measures is a good example of this.

When news of the virus began making its way to Vietnam in January 2020, there were few grand pronouncements from the government. There were no heavy-handed enforcement measures directed at the average citizen. Information about both the virus and the steps being taken by the Vietnamese government spread incrementally. It took time. Nothing felt certain at the start.

It helps to understand that in the months and years leading up to the pandemic, stories like this were not unusual. “Something ominous is happening in China and it may have consequences for Vietnam,” is the kind of story that came up almost daily. New iterations of this basic concern were always making the rounds on Vietnamese social media. They were frequent topics of cafe conversation. The narrative of the day could revolve around actual, verifiable new items, or it could be some of the most far-fetched conspiracy theory you’ve ever encountered. There was everything in between. To say it was routine is a massive understatement.

So when news of a virus ravaging the city of Wuhan showed up, there was little to initially set it apart. People talked about it, but with the same varying levels of conviction and suspicion typical of news of this sort. What then happened over the next couple months was remarkable to witness.

With each new item of related news, this mystery virus became more and more central to conversations being had. When Vietnam began doing things like ending flights to and from Wuhan or tightening land border crossings, it didn’t signal some conclusive turning point. It just altered how it was discussed. You could see people framing and looking to test various personal theories of the virus’ significance.

At the time, I was lucky to be around quite a few people in Quảng Ninh who were involved in cross-border trade with China. The border opening and closing to certain things or specific border crossings phasing in and out of activity is a basic part of their working life. They monitor those goings on with an ever-changing network of personal and business contacts. Small fortunes ride on knowing a bit more about it a bit before someone else does.

When word of an impending border closure started working through that community, everyone was on the phone all the time. Which border crossings would be affected? Was it being closed by Vietnamese or Chinese officials? Was it just for goods or people? And, maybe most importantly, how closed was the border going to be? It is one thing to announce an official closure; it is a much more noteworthy event should that be followed with an intense enforcement involving the many informal border crossing methods that usually operate.

It quickly became clear that it was Vietnamese officials implementing a closure of every China-Vietnam border crossing for (at least initially) both people and goods. There were to be no exceptions. This on its own rocked much of the trading community I knew. It is almost always China who enacts the closures of the border and “no exceptions” was like a foreign phrase new to almost every ear. Everyone immediately started calling those they knew who worked in less formal parts of the Vietnam-China trade, and to their astonishment, they found that minders of dozens of established routes between the countries (by both land and sea) had been told in no uncertain terms that it all had to cease effective immediately. Word of forceful interventions (that didn’t make the news) spread like wildfire. Over the course of that week, this most keyed-in segment of Vietnamese citizens became very aware that something very, very big was happening.

While this group may have had an early sense of the seriousness of the situation, their impression of the matter and the details that informed it didn’t stick with them. All the while that they were trying to assess the local forces at work, friends and family from all over the country were calling them (knowing that they’d be able to confirm or refute various rumors). There was a continuous updating of best available guesses working to and from the province.

This process of conversationally positing and collectively falsifying speculative interpretations of official matters based on private information networks is so ubiquitous in Vietnamese society, I’m not even sure it registers as part of the pandemic response. But it surely was.

When I got back to Hanoi, it was clear that it wasn’t only the traders on the border working their informational networks in this manner. My partner likely knows two or three dozen people who work in health care around the country. Doctors, nurses, and administrators in many different hospitals, clinics and government offices. She was constantly bouncing questions off them about the nature of the virus, what people knew about how it spread, whether quarantines in various hospitals or streets were really necessary or enforced.

In the early days, one of the main things people around me doubted and sought confirmation on was whether or not Vietnam really had so few cases. Many countries were succumbing in such dramatic fashion that it seemed improbable that Vietnam had somehow been spared or protected itself. From the exasperated reactions of the people my partner was calling, it is clear that she wasn’t the only one seeking this same assurance.

Yes, huge precautions are being taken all over the hospital. No, we don’t have any increase in respiratory cases. I don’t know about other places, but there doesn’t seem like anything being hidden here.

Over and over, the same conversations.

When schools didn’t reopen after Tết and it was clear that might be extended for weeks or months, you had the same drive for intel being directed at school headmasters, teachers, and education ministry people. If you knew anyone working in an affected field, you can be sure they were getting calls from friends and family trying to bring the picture into focus.

On stoops in front of row houses, on benches next to apartment buildings, and in bia hơi’s around the city, you heard all these private information mining efforts mixing and cross-referencing. People argued and took mental notes. Each new foray out into the city brought a new idea about who they might check in with. This process of conversationally positing and collectively falsifying speculative interpretations of official matters based on private information networks is so ubiquitous in Vietnamese society, I’m not even sure it registers as part of the pandemic response. But it surely was.

A lot has been made of the unprecedented degree of transparency the Vietnamese government has used in their pandemic response, but it must be emphasized that transparency isn’t a self-evident quality of any given piece of information. Any authority can say, “We’re being fully transparent,” whether or not that is actually the case. The Vietnamese government often does so. In this case, it hasn’t been up to the authorities themselves to deem their own efforts transparent; that has fallen to a public well-versed in what it takes to parse official announcements and actions. They almost never get the whole story in matters like this; using personal information networks to figure out what something means for themselves and others is an essential life skill. They put weeks and weeks of active, collective work into this interpreting of the government response. Once the only reasonable conclusion was clear — having evaluated nearly every other imaginable interpretation — the public was onboard. They deserves as much credit as anyone for that effort.

It felt like the tipping point came sometime in March. All the government announcements about individual cases and the various measures to halt their spread were laid neatly over top the emergent, public sense of the new state of things…and they matched. Vietnamese people are accustomed to a degree of opacity in every government action. It almost never plays out the way Covid-19 has. There was no sense of invested interests being shielded. There were no face-saving gestures to untangle. It wasn’t all for show.

This moment seemed, at the time, nearly as disorienting for the people around me as the actual content of the image they were looking at. It all lined up. This was a singularly important moment, and the government was being thoroughly transparent about the entire matter.

As that sank in, you could see everyone get the same resolute look. People would make eye contact in the streets and just nod. Talk shifted from, “What’s happening here?,” to, “How will we get through this?” From that point on, public trust in the government’s response has been very high. This confidence only increased as an astonished Vietnamese public watched nations who had lectured it for decades about public health, institutional competency, and government transparency sink into the mire of misinformation and finger pointing.

Unlike what has been happening elsewhere, it has truly felt like we’ve all been in it together here. But never let anyone tell you that this is just naturally the way Vietnamese culture plays out, that they suffer some kind of brainwashed credulity with regards to their government, or that they have been living in fear.

This trust was earned, and it wasn’t easy.

In the elation that followed the suppression of the first wave of the virus in May, you heard a common refrain: we haven’t seen a Vietnam like this in decades. You’d hear it from the elders of families or neighborhoods. It hasn’t been like this since the war years. The pride and relief was so palpable, it was impossible not to be touched by it.

This is what makes it so frustrating to see it all reduced to simple-minded obedience or fear. Something special happened here, something that not even this country’s own citizens were confident could happen.

This essay was originally published by the author on Medium.

Author Bio

Hồn Du Mục lives in Vietnam.


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